Join us on Worm’s weekly foray into the more unusual corners of Wikipedia, this week going in search of some sadly overlooked polar explorers…
The Arctic Balloon Expedition of 1897 was an ill-fated Swedish effort to reach the North Pole in which all three expedition members perished. Salomon Andrée, the first person in Sweden to fly an air balloon, initially proposed a voyage by hydrogen balloon from the Svalbard Archipelago over the top of the world, which was to pass right over the North Pole on the way. The Swedish government were very keen to promote this adventurous exploration at a time when many countries were locked in a scramble for empire and prestige.
Andrée assured his government backers and an excited global audience that Arctic summer weather was uniquely suitable for ballooning. He told them that the midnight sun would enable observations round the clock, halving the voyage time required, and do away with all need for anchoring at night, which might otherwise be a dangerous business. Neither would the balloon’s buoyancy be adversely affected by the cold. The revolutionary new drag-rope steering technique he had invented was promoted as being well adapted for a region where the ground, consisting of ice, was “low in friction and free of vegetation”.
Andrée neglected many early signs of the dangers associated with his balloon plan. Being able to steer the balloon to some extent was essential for a safe journey, and there was plenty of evidence that his new drag-rope steering technique was totally ineffective; yet he staked the fate of the expedition on drag ropes. Worse, the polar balloon Örnen (Eagle) was delivered directly to Svalbard from its manufacturer in Paris without being tested; when measurements showed it to be leaking more than expected, Andrée refused to acknowledge the alarming implications of this, whether from an uncontrollable ego or a fear of looking foolish to his sponsors remains unknown.
After lifting off from Svalbard in July 1897, the balloon, containing Andrée and two young students, lost hydrogen quickly and crashed on the pack ice after only two days. The explorers were unhurt but faced a gruelling trek back south towards land across the drifting ice.
The three soon found that their struggle across the ice with its two-story-high ridges was hardly bringing the goal any nearer: the drift of the ice was in the opposite direction to land, moving them backwards. On August 4 they decided, after a long discussion, to aim for Seven Islands in the southwest instead. “Paradise!” wrote Andrée en route “Large even ice floes with pools of sweet drinking water and here and there a tender-fleshed young polar bear!”
Two of the men with lunch
On September 12, the explorers found that they had not travelled as far as hoped, and resigned themselves to wintering on the ice and camped on a large floe, letting the ice take them where it would. Soon after, the ice carried them to the small barren island of Kvitøya.
“Morale remains good”, reported Andrée at the very end of the coherent part of his diary, which ends: “With such comrades as these, one ought to be able to manage under practically any circumstances whatsoever.” It is inferred from the incoherent and badly damaged last pages of Andrée’s diary that the three men were all dead within a few days of moving onto the island.
For the next 33 years, the fate of the expedition was shrouded in mystery and the disappearance part of cultural lore in Sweden, becaming the subject of myth and rumor, with frequent international newspaper reports of possible findings.
A norwegian expedition found the remains of the expedition in the summer of 1930. The bodies of the three dead men were cremated without further examination upon being returned to Sweden in 1930. The question of what, exactly, killed them has since attracted controversy among scholars. There is general agreement on many particulars. For instance, the explorers are known to have mainly eaten scanty amounts of canned and dry goods from the balloon stores, plus huge portions of half-cooked meat of polar bears and occasionally seals. They suffered often from foot pains and diarrhoea and were always tired, cold, and wet. When they moved on to Kvitøya from the ice, they left much of their valuable equipment and stores outside the tent, and even down by the water’s edge, as if they were too exhausted, indifferent, or ill to carry it further. Strindberg, the youngest, died first and was “buried” (wedged into a cliff aperture) by the others. However, the interpretation of these observations is contested.
The best-known and most widely credited suggestion is that the men succumbed to (extremely unpleasant) trichinosis that they contracted from eating undercooked polar bear meat. Critics point out that the diarrhea which is its main symptomatic evidence hardly needs an explanation beyond the general poor diet and physical misery, whereas some more specific symptoms of trichinosis are missing. Other suggestions have included vitamin A poisoning from eating polar bear liver; however, the diary shows Andrée to have been aware of this danger. Lead poisoning from the cans in which their food was stored is an alternative suggestion, as are scurvy, botulism, suicide (they had plenty of opium), and polar bear attack. An unglamourous combination favoured by some is simply that of cold, exhaustion, apathy, and disappointment.
In 1897, Andrée’s daring/foolhardy undertaking had nourished Swedish patriotic pride and Swedish dreams of taking the scientific lead in the Arctic. The three explorers were fêted when they departed and mourned by the nation when they disappeared. When their bodies were found, they were celebrated for the heroism of their doomed two-month struggle to reach populated areas and were seen as having selflessly perished for the ideals of science and progress. The home-bringing of their mortal remains to Stockholm on October 5, 1930, writes Swedish historian of ideas Sverker Sörlin, “must be one of the most solemn and grandiose manifestations of national mourning that has ever occurred in Sweden.”